Laptop on a person's lap, with the Netflix website visible in a browser.
Residential IPs are a type of IP address that trick streaming services into thinking you're not using a VPN. Though they don't always work, they're a powerful tool in any VPN provider's arsenal.

Ever wondered how it is that certain VPNs can unblock Netflix while others struggle? The answer lies in what are called residential IPs, a particular type of internet address that is much harder to detect than the ones VPNs usually use. Here’s how they work.

VPNs and Netflix

If you know a little about how VPNs work, you know that when you use one you’re rerouting your connection through a server belonging to your VPN provider. In doing so, you assume the location associated with that server, making you appear like you’re accessing a site from somewhere other than where you live.

This is handy for a number of reasons, but it’s particularly great for anybody that wants to make the most out of their Netflix subscription. When choosing shows or movies on Netflix, you’re restricted to the selection of your current country. Netflix has a lot more to offer than what you see on the home screen—it’s just behind a regional block.

Because a VPN lets you fake your location (usually called “spoofing”), it lets you get around these regional blocks. The way it works is that when you access Netflix, it checks your IP address—a set of numbers that determines your “address” on the web—to see where you’re accessing the site from. If you’re in the US, but spoof a UK IP address, then you get to watch UK Netflix.

Netflix’s Detection Measures

All the above sounds pretty simple, and in theory it is. However, Netflix and other streaming services aren’t too fond of customers getting around these regional blocks and have set up detection measures that help them identify spoofed IPs and block them.

While it’s unclear exactly how these detection systems work—unsurprisingly, Netflix didn’t reply when we asked—we spoke to some VPN providers who made some educated guesses. The most likely culprits are databases that register which IP addresses belong to VPNs and which do not.

Companies like IP2Location and IPQualityScore maintain lists like this for exactly this purpose. They will go over lists of the addresses handed out by IP registrars and try to figure out which belong to businesses, which belong to VPNs, and which belong to regular people. This is where residential IPs come in.

What Are Residential IPs?

A residential IP address is an IP address that’s associated with, well, a residence, a place where people live. This is usually determined by seeing who bought the IP addresses in the first place. For example, if the purchaser is an internet service provider like Verizon or AT&T, it’ll be classified as residential.

Their ability to circumvent any Netflix blocks makes residential IPs prized possessions. When connecting to a site using one of them, it’s recognized as belonging to a regular person, thus not setting off any alarms or anything. You’re sneaking by any detection systems in plain sight.

Most VPN providers will get their IP addresses via web hosts or other ways, and will thus be classified as belonging to businesses or VPNs—the process isn’t entirely clear. What we do know is that if an IP address is on a VPN-related list, it won’t likely be coming off it any time soon.

How VPNs get their hands on residential IPs is a bit murky, too, and nobody wanted to tell us how they got them. Then again, it’s hard to blame VPN providers for not telling us how they make their secret sauce. It’s also unclear which VPN services are making use of them. All we can assume is that if a VPN is good at streaming—like many of the best VPNs are—that they use residential IPs.

The Perfect Weapon?

That said, residential IPs aren’t bulletproof, either: for example, Netflix doesn’t solely rely on third-party tracking tools. The company also seems to deploy its own systems. If a single residential IP has four or five people watching at the same time, the company is going to realize something fishy is going on and will probably block that IP, residential or not.

We saw a likely case of this happen in real time when we used a decentralized VPN to stream Netflix, a type of VPN that makes liberal use of residential VPNs. Things were going swimmingly until suddenly we were kicked out by Netflix; this happened several times. The most likely explanation is that other people started using the same IP, and the site realized something was up.

As good as they are in helping VPN providers crack Netflix, it seems residential IPs have their limits, too. Still, though, unless Netflix finds a way to filter them out, it seems like most VPNs will keep using them. At least, that’s all we can assume is behind the success rate of services like NordVPN and ExpressVPN when it comes to getting through to other regions’ libraries.

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Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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